‘They invented a new way of combining paintings, books and engravings’

Introducing the third and final series of sales from the library of Paul Destribats, the Paris-based bibliophile whose collection includes works by leading figures of the 20th-century avant-garde, from Breton to Duchamp to Miró


Paul Destribats (1926-2017) was one of the greatest book collectors of his generation. His library of more than 6,000 volumes, manuscripts and printed documents covering the 20th-century avant-garde is one of the finest ever to come to market.

The collection offers an encyclopaedic overview of the diverse strands of the European, American, and even Asiatic avant-garde movements, and includes works by some of its foremost writers, poets and artists, including Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso. The core of the collection, however, is the work of André Breton, the leader and principal theorist of Surrealism.

Parts I and II of the collection were offered by Christie’s in Paris, in association with the bookseller Jean-Baptiste de Proyart and specialist Claude Oterelo, in July 2019 and February 2020, achieving a combined total of €10,288,237. 

The third and final part of the collection, which consists of 502 lots, will be offered across three days of sales beginning on 2 February 2021 at Christie’s in Paris. 

While many of the books in the collection have original artists’ illustrations, what is particularly exciting, says Proyart, ‘is the fact that many of these artists created new images [for these works] that nobody had ever seen before. They invented a new way of combining paintings, books and engravings, which was something unique.’

One of the most anticipated lots is A toute épreuve, above, a Joan Miró masterpiece published in 1958 consisting of 80 original woodcuts on China paper, plus an additional woodcut that has been hand-coloured with gouache by the artist. It is one of just 20 copies ever made.

‘The important thing is that a book must have all the dignity of a sculpture carved in marble,’ Miró once said. 

Another highlight is Boîte alerte. Missives lascives, below, a collection of photographs, letters, lithographs, stamps, a telegram and a record made by Marcel Duchamp, André Breton and other artists exhibiting in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme  held at the Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris in 1959-60. Intended to be the show’s catalogue, this set of ‘Lustful Letters’ packaged in a green cardboard postbox is one of only 20 deluxe versions produced and includes a pair of aprons signed by Duchamp.

Also included in the upcoming sale is a deluxe print of One ¢ Life, below, one of the most important Pop Art books ever made. 

The volume was conceived in the early 1960s by the Chinese American artist Walasse Ting. He and the book’s editor, the Abstract Expressionist painter Sam Francis, asked friends including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Indiana, Tom Wesselmann and Jim Dine to provide lithographs to accompany Ting’s poems. Ting then spent 10 months in Paris supervising the printing of the plates. This copy is one of a deluxe edition of 100, and one of only 40 from that set reserved for collaborators.

Highlights from Part II of the sale included a proof copy of Guillaume de Vaux’s La Maigre  (below), which contains working proof engravings by Picasso, as well as handwritten notes by the Georgia-born book designer and publisher Iliazd, which achieved €162,500. There was also a first edition of Max Ernst’s Maximiliana, ou l'exercice illégal de l'astronomie  (1964), which sold for €118,750.

The latter was a collaboration between Iliazd and Ernst, a primary exponent of the Dada movement. The title of the book refers to an asteroid discovered in 1861 by the German philosopher Ernst Wilhelm Tempel. Ernst’s text and aquatints pay homage to Tempel’s mission to explore domains beyond ordinary human perception. 

Leading Part I of the collection was a first-edition copy of La Barre d’appuibelow, a volume of poems by Paul Eluard, illustrated with engravings by Picasso of Nusch, the love of the poet’s life, and to whom this edition is dedicated. The work soared past its high estimate of €150,000 to realise €532,000. 

Other notable highlights included André Breton’s Second manifeste du Surréalisme. Frontispice de Salvador Dalí  from 1930, which fetched €442,000, nearly triple its high estimate; and a first-edition copy of Champs délicieux (1922), below, a book collating 40 rayograms by Man Ray, all of which are signed. The book — one of only two known copies — also came with a letter addressed to the photographer Tristan Tzara. It sold for €346,000.

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‘Once the Destribats collection has been dispersed, it will be impossible for future generations to recreate a collection such as this ever again,’ says Proyart. ‘That is why this series of sales represents a truly surreal moment for the book world and the art market.’

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